"If you can take a step, you can walk a mile." This was my motivation for having my first serious mountaineering experience. I did summit the 314-meter-high Bud Bongao in Tawi-Tawi, Philippines; I could possibly reach the peak of Gunung Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Malaysia.
This historic climb was part of the tour package I bought online from Amazing Borneo for 2,725 Malaysian Ringgit, about 33,000 Pesos excluding airfare. Indeed it was quite expensive, but I wanted a grand getaway so I saved up my year-end bonus then managed to get few days off on the occasion of Pope's January 2015 visit to Manila.
It was my second time to be out of the country and the second also that I would be traveling all by myself. My first solo travel was to Cagayan De Oro City in December 2007 where I had a very bad experience. I got physically attacked and robbed right in front of the hotel where I was staying. I spent my year-end break in the hotel room solitary with swollen arms. Due to the incident, my mind was conditioned that it was quite boring and unsafe to travel alone. When I arrived in Kota Kinabalu I was really glad to have been grouped with another Filipino adventurer during the tour. His name was Jules. He worked at the Department of Justice as a state Prosecutor and we actually came from the same town.
Jules had climbed some mountains in the Philippines and did several fitness activities. He was also over 40 years old but appeared to be indefatigable. The first day, we went to Pulau Manukan and Jules snorkeled under the heat of the sun for like three hours while I just hid in the shade most of the time. Our tour guide urged me to join Jules in the water because it was just a waste of money paying for snorkel and goggles without actually using them. Yeah right, swimming was fun but I didn't want my bb cream to melt and keeping a fair skin then was more important.
Included in our itinerary on day two was a visit to the hanging footbridge then another stop to have lunch and to get some souvenir items at this local market midway up the Kinabalu Park World Heritage Site.
It was almost three in the afternoon when we arrived at Taman Kinabalu. The surrounding was foggy with intermittent drizzle. At the reception, several people were waiting to be checked in. There, we met Benjamin, a young man from Australia. The three of us together were briefed on the acclimatization, the facilities and some other things about the trek.
During dinner, Benjamin shared to us his travel journey. He narrated his whole year of backpacking experience mainly in Europe and he was then on his way back home to Adelaide. I was so impressed that a jobless youth traveled continuously for so long. It was the point where I made the realization that I had been confining myself in a limited world and if I continued living the same way, I would miss a huge deal of wonderful moments.
Jules also had a lot of adventures to share: going to beautiful places in the Philippines, mountain climbing, and fun run. About me, it was my first backpacking experience and I didn't have any activity worth telling except my daily act of excruciatingly conquering not the peak but the base of mountainous documents on my desk at the office. Because my turn was a bit boring and the high altitude weather was making me less responsive to the exchanges, I had to leave and go back to the lodge to put on some warmers.
I found the lodge dreary, almost creepy. The surrounding was dark, the only light was at the living room with no one else there and the only sound I could hear was from crickets. It was well decorated though, having a fireplace, old photos hanging on the wall and few wooden furniture. While looking at the framed photos, I suddenly sensed movements on the terrace and I felt the hair on my nape raised. When I turned to my side I was stunned to see this huge, tall creature moving towards the door. Oh my God, I froze for a moment, then collected my strength to run and scream.
I felt relieved when he got to the lighted room and revealed his head out of the hood. He said "HI" while putting down his backpack. He was Kuo Chun Wei, a six-footer (or taller) medical doctor from Taipei. While we were asking each other some random questions, Jules came in to join us in the conversation. A little later, five Chinese Malaysian guys arrived. They were young engineers who worked in an oil industry in Kuala Lumpur. One of them was Robin Brian, an amiable guy, who later sat down with us. After few minutes, Jules asked to be excused as he was having sniffles. Kuo, Robin and I stayed at the living room and continued chatting.
In our dorm room, I noticed Jules was a bit peaky and actually did feel worse. He was sneezing and coughing and soon the coughing became more frequent and violent. I couldn't sleep so I went back to the living room and felt glad to see Kuo and Robin still there. I complained to them that my roommate's lungs might have collapsed already and it was causing so much disturbance on my part. The night passed without me getting enough sleep.
The trek would start at exactly eight in the morning just after everyone had breakfast. Before going to the registration center, Benjamin and I went to a small shop beside the restaurant to get some needed gears: we bought disposable rain ponchos, scarfs, and cheap gloves. We also got some chocolate wafers and a bag of M and M's, thinking we would be burning a lot of calories.
Then we went to see our agents for final instructions and to meet our assigned guide. Since Jules and I booked the tour separately, each of us was assigned own guide though we could go together. My trek guide was Carlance Sulidan. Benjamin was having a little problem finding his guide and we thought that he might have booked in a bogus online company. Fortunately, after some inquiries we found the agent. After registration, we made an arrangement for the safekeeping of our backpacks until we return from the mountain. I paid 10 Ringgit and the staff agreed to just include Jules' little pouch in my locker without having to pay extra.
Everyone was really elated at the starting point, busy taking pictures at the gate, some forgetting their trekking poles, and I forgot about my climb buddies. The trail was easy the first few kilometers - just a light hike with short ascend from one pondok (shed) to another. Gradually, the climb was getting tougher. After several pondoks, my energy had depleted but I still had to keep a snappy pace otherwise I would be left far behind the other climbers. Along the trail, we would meet people who were descending and they would cheerfully encourage us to keep pushing. They would always say, "you're almost there." Oh wow, I had been "almost there" for like three hours already. At the beginning, rest was only at the pondok about 300 meters apart, now I had to stop after every few minutes. I was drained.
Finally, the struggle was finished at three in the afternoon. I reached Laban Rata about 30 minutes behind Benjamin and Kuo. They then asked me where was Jules, and I replied: "he might still be down there somewhere." I was not sure whether he proceeded with his condition. It was almost six o'clock when Jules showed up. His determination to complete the trek despite ill health was truly admirable.
We checked in at Laban Rata Rest House for an overnight stay. The rest house was somewhat crowded with people from different continents, we were like over a hundred pilgrims gathered in one hall for socialization. All tables were occupied so Kuo and I just stood at the balcony with three girls from New Zealand. I thought Kuo was distracted by the girls because he carelessly dropped his iPad and it went right through the gap on the flooring straight to the shrubs. We had to ask someone to go down and get it. Later, the lens cover of his manual camera fell just the same. Kuo was somewhat embarrassed and I blurted, "man, I think these Kiwis make you clumsy."
We were again elated when the sun started to bedim over the horizon. It was like a glowing pearl with orange rays along the sea of clouds. So beautiful. Indeed, the climb was long hours of struggle, but that magnificent view at the end of the day was worth every bit of it.
Food was ready just after sunset. Carlance instructed me to have dinner early and hit the bed soon so I would have enough rest before the ascend. But I enjoyed hobnobbing with Benjamin and our new English friend, Ethan. I was inspired listening to different travel stories. I went to the dorm room pass 10:00 PM.
My Malaysian roommates woke up few minutes before my alarm actually went off at 2 in the morning. I was like "oh we are up too early," but I was infected by the enthusiasm. After putting on our mountain outfit, we went to the cafeteria to have supper. I didn't have the appetite to consume enough food so I asked a guy from the kitchen to make me extra pancakes. Supper was eat-all-you-can but I wasn't sure if it was okay to take food out, so I sneakily put the pancakes in my knapsack which I would carry up the Low's Peak. Ethan, across the table, chuckled then said, "oh yeah, that's clever, man."
It was drizzling again when we started climbing. I wasn't concerned about the weather, all I had in me was excitement. I thought, "this is it! I paid a lot for this." When over, this would be one triumph that I could be so proud of sharing with my peers. My excitement was boosted when I put on all my gears. I felt like a real mountaineer with a headlamp on illuminating my path into the wilderness.
After about 2 hours of nonstop ascending, I began to trudge. And worse, the rain poured hard. It was very difficult to climb up the rocks: water was dripping from the rope, my gloves were soaked and my hands were chilled.
Then one by one, fellow climbers were going down. Somebody told me to turn around as well because it was impossible to get up the summit. I felt so much colder as if my face was turning into ice but I had to keep climbing. I needed to do it, "I have gone this far, I cannot fail myself." My poncho was flying off my body like a kite - chik jik jik jik chik jik jik. Kuo was few feet ahead of me pushing against the wind, and I moved along still hopeful that we would make it.
Following several minutes of self torture, I was out of energy. I closed my eyes, "Oh God." Suddenly, I saw beacon and imagined it was of life. Benjamin was actually flashing his lamp on my face. He said, "are you okay? Come on let us go back." I told him I could do it. I asked Carlance to just stay close, "we need to climb up, I need to get up the summit."
"How many more meters?" I inquired. Carlance replied, "the peak is about 200." I was electrified and yelled to Kuo "Oh, we can do this bro, the weather will subside soon, we just have to keep moving little by little." We had been instructed to keep moving to maintain our body heat, if we would stop, the cold might make our joints immobile.
After several minutes, still, the rain did not stop. We noticed almost all the lamps were already moving down and Kuo eventually turned around. But I became more determined to proceed, I thought "I can conquer this mountain, I am stronger than these big people."
My poncho was already ripped open and I was trembling. My face was numb and it was difficult to breathe. I reached for the flat surface and took a seat. Carlance yelled, "keep moving," but I was stuck, I felt death was coming to embrace me. Then suddenly my eyes became moist, "this is stupid, why am I punishing myself like this?" I wanted real bad to complete the trek but "I am not gonna die from hypothermia up here." Feeling crestfallen, I told Carlance "we are going back!" Then we began to descend.
It was almost six o'clock when the rain stopped and we were half way back to Laban Rata. While still carrying the weight of disappointment on my chest, I asked Carlance if we could proceed to the summit instead. He said it was not possible anymore because I would have to spend another night in Laban Rata. I remembered I had a flight to catch. And even if I was willing to extend my trip, my level of exhaustion was already at the max.
Going down was even harder because I was dead tired and I could already see the precipice. I couldn't believe we went through that steep trail. I was having fear of height all of a sudden. I could not move, my knees were shaking. When I tried to take a step down, I slid so fast and the stopper was a rock against my groin. Ouch! That hurt real bad. I quickly grabbed the rope before I would slide farther. Carlance immediately came to my aid then we climb down slowly. We were back at the rest house few minutes past 8 o'clock.
Jules appeared to be relaxed having coffee at the cafeteria. I asked him how was his climb. He said he didn't go. I relayed to him my great disappointment. At the end of our conversation he said, "don't worry about the money you spent coming here, you can save again and come back much prepared the next time. Even if you missed your aspired amazing sunrise up the summit today, this whole experience is still one great story to tell." Then I went to see Benjamin and kidded him, "hey, you are such a lousy motivator, why didn't you stay, we could have pushed a little more." And we just laughed out our frustration agreeing we were unlucky to have climbed on a wrong day.
Time to descend from Laban Rata was at 9 AM. I told Carlance to give me more time to relax my legs because I was feeling a little pain. At nine thirty I collected my things and bought a pair of slippers at the little store in the cafeteria. Ethan saw me putting the slippers on and he said, "you are not going down with that flip-flops, are you?" "My shoes are soaked," I replied. "Oh you're kidding me, you're gonna meet an accident with that, the path is really slippery," he said as he showed me how he solved his problem of wet shoes by wearing plastic bags as his socks. I said "that's genius!" He replied, "not as genius as putting pancakes in a bag." Then we laughed.
We left Laban Rata forty-five minutes past nine. I was moving down the trail quickly at first but after some time I began to feel the injury. People who left at a later time were going ahead running fast down the steps. I had to stop constantly because the pain was getting more and more intense. I was literally dragging my limbs. Midway down, I was relieved to be pacing slowly with a Chinese girl. But moments later she was gone ahead as well. In total, it was a grueling 7 hours of my life. I felt so uncomfortably lonely all the way down knowing I would be the last person to be back at the gate.
Finally, at almost five in the afternoon, I reached Timpohon Gate where my tour guide was patiently waiting. He looked really pleased to see me at last. I thanked Carlance and gave him a little tip. I handed him my gloves as well and said "I won't be needing this anymore, I will not climb mountain ever again." He grinned at me being certain that I didn't mean what I said. Then we drove back to Kinabalu Park Headquarters to collect my certificate and have some meal. When I got there, everyone was gone and my food was packed in a styro container. The tour guide explained that most of the climbers arrived 3 hours earlier and buffet lunch was served until 3 o'clock only.
Jules had already gone back to the city with another group. His pouch was still with me so we had to bring it to his hotel. It was already dark when we got there and he was already taking rest as he was not feeling well.
My tour guide insisted that since I still had enough time before my flight at dawn, I should undergo medical check-up first in their clinic. I argued I was feeling perfectly fine. I could go straight to a hospital upon arrival in Manila in case the pain would worsen.
I was still limping when I got back to work. I felt nauseated looking at several stacks of papers in my cubicle. Grappling with indolence, I picked one document and resumed my routine.
A few months later I was informed by a common friend that Jules became really ill and his health gradually declined. Eventually three months after our climb, he died.
How tragic. Jules was an experienced adventurer. I was the feeble guy who valiantly jumped into an unprecedented enterprise. It terrified me thinking that Jules and I shared some identical circumstances. If the Angel of Death verified his subject using a summary checklist, the series of our outdoor activities might be the only item that didn't match. Gunung Kinabalu was my mountaineering baptismal. It was Jules' final climb.